Authors: Aaron Allston
Tags: #Star Wars, #X Wing, #Wraith Squadron series, #6.5-13 ABY
The smile of Shalla Nelprin, the squadron’s newest lieutenant, was broad and genuine.
That left Myn Donos, a lieutenant with more years and more experience than Face. He looked serious and contemplative. But then, serious was merely a step up from his usual expression, that of dour intensity. Still, he had to know that this promotion reflected a lack of trust in his command skills. Mere months ago, while wearing the rank of brevet captain himself, Donos had commanded an X-wing unit that had been slaughtered by a Zsinj ally, Admiral Apwar Trigit, and had suffered serious emotional trauma resulting from that event. He probably thought that Wedge still held no trust in him.
Which wasn’t true. But Wedge Antilles’s units were largely meritocracies. The most meritorious pilots were promoted fastest, and Face had demonstrated more tactical savvy and more command skills than Donos, even though Wedge felt Donos was probably reliable.
As the applause died, Wedge said, “That’s it for now. Any questions?”
Face was first with a hand up. “If we’re launching tomorrow, sir, when do we get Piggy back?”
“We never lose him. He has requested that he be transferred to the bacta treatment facility aboard
. General Solo has approved the request. We’ll haul him around until he’s ready to emerge, then put him back to work. Wes?”
The Wraiths’s executive officer lowered his hand. “The usual.”
“The usual answer, too. We were lucky to get Face’s X-wing fully repaired. Wraith Squadron isn’t getting any replacement X-wings anytime soon. The Wraiths will continue flying mixed X-wings and TIE interceptors. Anything else? No? Dismissed.”
Thirty minutes later, Wedge opened the door to leave his quarters. He took an involuntary step back. There, shoulder to shoulder, blocking the door, were Wes Janson and Rogue Squadron pilot Derek “Hobbie” Klivian. Hobbie was struggling to keep his face straight; Janson’s expression was merry. Janson asked, “Going somewhere, Commander?”
Wedge shouldered his way between them. “We have leave, remember? That’s what you two should do. Leave.”
They fell in beside him, one on either side. This corridor, deep in the residential decks of Coruscant’s Sivantlie Base, led toward the turbolifts.
“Would you look at him?” Janson said. “Hair combed, evening clothes immaculate.”
Hobbie, his face as long and mournful as ever, said, “And he smells like a fresh spring morning.”
“I think our commander is going on a date.”
“I think you’re right.”
“Meaning he really needs our help. How long has it been since you’ve been on a date, Wedge? I don’t think some of the Wraiths were born then.”
“We’re your escort,” Hobbie said. “We’ll protect you from yourself.”
“So, who are you seeing?” Janson asked.
“What I’m seeing is kitchen duty in your immediate future,” Wedge said. They reached the bank of turbolifts and waited for the lift to reach them.
Janson continued, “It’s Iella, isn’t it?”
Wedge scowled. “What makes you think that?”
“Oh, nothing. Just the way you look whenever her name is mentioned. Have you noticed that, Hobbie?”
“Oh, I’ve noticed. What do you think?”
“I haven’t decided yet if she’s right for our commander. And the rest of the squad hasn’t voted yet.”
The turbolift doors opened and they entered the shallow car, turning to face the hall. Wedge held his hand against the side of the entryway, preventing the doors from closing. “Roof,” Wedge said.
Janson looked confused. “Roof? Not the personal vehicles hangar?”
“Roof.” Then Wedge took a deep breath and bellowed, “About face! Forward march!”
By reflex, the two pilots spun. Wedge stepped back out into the hall and heard Janson and Hobbie thud into the wall at the rear of the turbolift. Then the turbolift doors closed and the car carried his pilots up and far away.
He smiled and summoned another turbolift.
Two floors down, a quartet of Wraiths approached a door as anonymous as Wedge’s.
Donos said, “He just received a promotion of sorts. We shouldn’t present him with a mutiny first thing.” He kept from his face the discomfort he was feeling.
Dia Passik, the female Twi’lek, said, “He insisted that he wasn’t feeling well.”
Lara Notsil smiled over her shoulder at them. “He lied. He lies all the time, you know.”
“I know. But he seemed so genuine.”
“He does that all the time, too. This is the right thing to do. Myn, Elassar, back me up.”
The two men exchanged glances. “Absolutely,” Donos said.
The Devaronian looked confused. “You change sides pretty fast, don’t you, Lieutenant? I’ve barely met Captain Loran. I shouldn’t have an opinion.”
Lara scowled at him. “Wait a moment. A fellow Wraith says ‘Back me up,’ and you say ‘I don’t know’?”
The Devaronian straightened. His voice deepened. “My apologies. Absolutely. You’re right. In fact, we shouldn’t knock. We should just blast the door lock and kick the door in.”
“We’ll knock,” Lara said. She rapped on the door.
There was no answer. She knocked again, more insistently.
From within came Face’s voice. “Yes?”
“May we come in?”
“I’m not decent.”
“When are you ever?” Lara opened the door and looked in. Donos could see over her shoulder; Face was lying on his bed, still in uniform, staring at the ceiling.
Lara pushed her way in and heard the others crowd in behind her. “What are you doing?”
“I’m learning to play a variety of musical instruments using only the power of my mind.”
“That’s what I thought. Now it’s time to go out and enjoy yourself.”
“Maybe you didn’t hear the commander’s orders about the more recognizable members of the squads?”
She snorted. “That was for Runt’s sake most of all. When you’re two meters tall, covered in fur, and the only member of your species in Starfighter Command, you have to lie low sometimes. But
can put on a disguise. I’ve often suspected that you sometimes put on disguises just to go to the refresher.”
“Now, that’s an idea.” Face looked at her for the first time, gave her a smile that was meant to communicate cheer. “You go ahead. I’ll be fine.”
“Hey, I’m your wingman now. It’s my job to keep you from making big mistakes. And it would be a big mistake not to enjoy the last leave you’re likely to have for a while.”
“Do I have to pull rank on you?”
“You only get to do that when it’s appropriate. That’s the unwritten law.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“I read it somewhere.”
Face snorted. “All right. Give me five minutes to transform myself into something inconspicuous. Where are we going?”
Lara jerked a thumb back at her companions. “Since Elassar
hasn’t run up against Zsinj—or anyone but his instructors—before now, we’re going to take him to the Galactic Museum’s new display on Imperial Intelligence. Give him an idea what he’s up against. Then we get a drink. Then you and Myn and Elassar give in to male biology and insult a bar full of soldiers, and Dia and I haul your battered bodies back to base.”
Face looked helplessly at Donos and Elassar. “You see what happens when we don’t get involved in the mission’s planning stage?”
The museum’s displays on Imperial Intelligence were not, Donos decided, the one-sided history they could have been.
The first displays on the tour gave details of the Old Republic’s Intelligence division, the secret police who were charged with protecting the Republic from subversion and treason. One display, a holoscreen within a container the size and approximate shape of a bacta tank, played a drama about Republic Intelligence commandos thwarting an assassination attempt made against members of the old Republican Senate. Another display was a transparisteel case holding a score of weapons and gadgets used by field agents; Donos recognized the technological ancestors of gear the Wraiths had carried in the field.
Another holoprojection showed a man in dark commando garments. He was dark-skinned, graying at the temples, intense interest in his eyes, his features just a little too diabolical to be beautiful. “I was Vyn Narcassan,” he said. “In my twenty-year career with Republic Intelligence, I successfully completed over a hundred covert missions. I couldn’t prevent Senator Palpatine’s rise to power or his subsequent reign as Emperor. But I could, and did, engineer my disappearance. And despite Imperial Intelligence’s burning need to silence me and extinguish all the secrets I learned—” the projection leaned forward as if to impart a confidence—“they never found me.” He drew back, his smile creating deep dimples beside his mouth, his expression one of a satisfaction so immense that it bordered on arrogance.
Something about the projection jogged Donos’s memory, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. He filed it away for future reference. Someday, when he was trying to remember something else entirely, the answer would bubble up to the surface of his mind and annoy him intensely.
Farther along the series of black, ill-lit museum display halls—the decor an attempt, Donos thought, to edge visitors into the sort of paranoid mind-set appropriate to subjects such as Imperial Intelligence—the displays became more unsettling. As Palpatine took power, the Intelligence Division became a tool of terror and retaliation. Displays chronicled assassinations, kidnappings of Old Republic loyalists, tortures, subversions. An interrogation chamber was shown in great detail, actual holographic footage of a subject being questioned about a rumored insurrection. The replay showed the subject, a man of Chandrila, dying during questioning. The narrator finishing up commentary on the event pointed out that the insurrection was entirely imaginary.
One display showed the longtime Intelligence head, Armand Isard, an aging man with an inhumanity to his eyes and features that were unsettlingly real even in holographic replay. Farther down the exhibition, another showed his daughter, Ysanne Isard, nicknamed Iceheart, a tall and elegant woman of formidable bearing, and told of her swift rise to power through two simple tactics: turning in her own father for treasonous thoughts and attracting the eye of the Emperor. After Palpatine’s death, she had even managed secretly to gain control of the Empire itself for a time.
Face, his features buried under a wooly brown beard, lingered before the projection of Ysanne Isard for a long time, and Donos saw him shudder—a motion too slight for any but those who knew him best to notice. The Wraiths were aware that when Face was a boy star in holodramas, he’d actually met Iceheart, had even been invited to sit in her lap. Now Iceheart was dead, killed by Rogue Squadron’s own Tycho Celchu, and Donos knew the universe was better off without her.
To some extent, Imperial Intelligence had died with her. To be sure, an organization with that name survived under the
coalition that had replaced Iceheart, but it was not managed with the same inventive ruthlessness that had characterized Isard and her father. The organization was still a danger … but to fewer and fewer people as the years went by.
Instead of going out the exit at the end of the exhibition, the Wraiths turned about and went back the way they came, the better to give Targon a chance to view the displays again. As they passed the holo of Iceheart, Donos saw the Devaronian pilot pull up something held by a chain around his neck and press it to his forehead.
“A lucky charm?” Donos asked.
Targon nodded. “A coin of the Old Republic. It holds a lot of luck.”
“How do you know?”
“My brother was never shot down while wearing it. It’s better than anything else I have. He sent it to me when I joined the Academy. Better than my lucky carved bantha-bone. Better than my lucky belt buckle. Or my lucky gilding set. Or my—”
Face interrupted. “What’s a gilding set?”
“Well, you know. For my horns.”
“I don’t know. What about your horns?”
Targon shrugged. “For special occasions, important festivals, we sometimes—Devaronians I mean—put gold leaf on our horns. For decoration.”
“And this is just a device to help you do that?”
“What makes it lucky?”
“Well, the first time I used it, shortly before I entered the Academy, I attracted the eye of a certain young lady—”
Donos and Face exchanged glances. The Wraiths and Rogues were light on pilots who put much stock in good-luck charms, but such pilots were common throughout the New Republic and the Empire. Donos saw Face’s eyes light up, probably because of an idea for a prank.
“I was Vyn Narcassan. In my twenty-year career with Republic Intelligence, I successfully completed over a hundred covert missions.” As they reached the display honoring the last
of the Old Republic’s Intelligence heroes, Donos gave the man one last look, took in his dimpling smile, then realized what it was the man reminded him of.
Not what—who. The man’s skin tone, his dimples, his unusual physical beauty—they were all shared by another Wraith. Shalla Nelprin.
That rocked Donos back on his heels. But the physical resemblance was dramatic.
Donos smiled at the long-missing agent. “We’ll just let that be our little secret, Narcassan,” he said under his breath. “But I’m going to send Shalla a message and tell her to come visit this exhibit today. Not why. Just that she needs to. In case it means something to her.”
“Who are you talking to?” That was Lara. Face and Dia were already a few steps ahead, arm in arm, with Targon trailing behind them.
“I’ll tell you sometime.”
“Edallia?” The voice, wavery and uncertain, came from behind them. “Edallia Monotheer, it’s so good to see you!”
Donos glanced back. Approaching them was an old man, his hair a wispy white, his body so sparse of flesh that he seemed skeletal, but there was nothing menacing about the smile he was turning on Lara.
Behind him a dozen meters but coming at a trot was a middle-aged woman, overweight and matronly, her expression anxious. “Father,” she called, and she sounded out of breath. “Not again.”
The old man reached Lara, seized her hand, pumped it vigorously. “Edallia, it’s been so long. Did you ever marry that boy? Did you graduate? What have you been doing?”